In most La Liga seasons this matchup would be considered a gimme for Atletico Madrid. However, this Eibar team are a different beast altogether. The Basque team made Diego Simeone’s men sweat for the three points and ultimately the result was decided on the prowess of Koke’s set piece delivery.
The three points were crucial for Los Colchoneros, enabling them to stay in the hunt for the title. While that is the most important outcome of the match, two other aspects of the game stand out.
The first is that Saul Niguez started as centre back, covering for the suspended Diego Godin. This obviously speaks volumes about the versatility that the young Spaniard has. In his nascent career, the 21-year old Spaniard has been touted at various different times as an attacking midfielder, playmaker or false nine. Now, we can add centre back to his skill set. What this also tells us is that there may be no better manager in the world than Simeone when it comes to driving defensive discipline in his players. The romantics, including this writer, may ponder how attractive Atleti could be if their manager allowed his players to express themselves with a few more risky through balls or dribbles in a tight area. Simeone however, will rightly point out that the Rojiblancos have never had it this good. Intensity, focus and efficiency have resulted in unprecedented success for the club. That Simeone can mould all his players — veterans, superstars and youngsters — to his desired template is of immense credit to the Argentinian.
The other noteworthy aspect of the game is something that could ultimately come to restrict Atletico in the big games. Even against an opponent that chose to sit back, the home side only managed 50 % of the possession. Possession of course, isn’t everything in football. However, it does suggest that for all his attention to detail, Simeone has not been able to come up with a solid plan B. Recent results against Barcelona and Real suggest the traditional top two have become used to Simeone’s nuances and Atleti could face similar troubles against the continent’s established elite in the Champions League. While their willpower, physical fitness and desire to win can never be discounted, a little tactical variety and flair could enable Atleti to dream of even bigger things.